Hot and Dry at the Portage

If my memory serves me correctly, last year we were complaining of too much rain. I remember the tall plants in my backyard towering over everything and wondering if perhaps I should have discouraged them earlier. As it turns out, the tall plants seem to be growing up just as much without rain, but I am in no mood to discourage anything.

Anyway, Saturday I went to the Portage early and encountered John as I pulled into the parking lot. He leads discussions and walks on Saturdays at 10:00 AM regarding the history of the place. He had arrived early, said he was getting into birding but had forgotten his binoculars and wanted to know if he could tag along with me. We had a good time talking and walking along the trail, and he told me the history of the early explorers and how the Des Plaines River was diverted to feed the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. So initially the little bit of water now left to the Portage is part of the original Des Plaines River bed, but nothing feeds it except rain. With that knowledge I am amazed that when I first started coming here, there was enough water to support herons feeding and even a pair of Green Herons nesting. I haven’t seen the Green Herons here for several years now.

This year there doesn’t seem to be water to make it buggy enough to support Eastern Phoebes or Eastern Kingbirds like last year. We do have Eastern Wood-Pewees and Great Crested Flycatchers.

When John and I started up the trail we encountered that large painted turtle featured at the head of this post, on the gravel path. I wonder if it was a female looking for a place to lay her eggs. There haven’t been many turtles visible this year. The drought is affecting them as well.

But then we saw an Eastern Wood-Pewee, who even sang for us. I love these little guys – I often hear them clear across the woods but don’t always see them.

While we paused on the back trail on the other side of the fence, an Osprey flew over.

I was able to show John my most reliable Indigo Bunting whose territory is on the East side of the North bridge. The bunting was happy to pose and sing for us. A recording of his song is below the photos.

John had to leave to get ready for his tour/talk so we parted ways. I will have to attend one of his presentations. I confess I used avoid the Portage on Saturday mornings because of all the extra people, but now I’ve gotten used to it after the pandemic brought in a lot of new visitors.

I continued along the trail in the direction I usually take. The rest of these photos are not in order but they are the only birds I was able to capture. Below is a Red-Belled Woodpecker on the dark side of an oak tree.

I caught this Northern Flicker inspecting a nest hole.

Whatever you may think of Brown-headed Cowbirds, they can still be attractive.

Below is the first butterfly I have seen except for a Monarch here and there. It’s a Skipper, but I haven’t been able to identify it precisely. It was very tiny.

There was a Bald Eagle flying over.

There were very few swallows – this was the only Tree Swallow I saw.

Even the Red-winged Blackbirds were lying low.

I sat on the bench by the parking lot before returning to my car and caught this male Baltimore Oriole foraging around in the low trees at the edge of the lawn.

I decided to forego birding again on Sunday morning and opted to do a little yard work in anticipation of more to come. The Berwyn Historical Society this year decided to start an annual garden walk event on June 19, and my crazy garden, a/k/a postage-stamp-sized wildlife refuge, has been selected. The idea was pandemic-inspired because normally the BHS would be offering a bungalow tour, but since that wasn’t possible, the idea for an outdoor event occurred. My front yard still appears somewhat organized even though its creator, who has since passed, would likely have issues with all the Common Milkweed and other aggressors overtaking his original plan. It was just my luck that a Monarch visited the milkweed a week and a half ago and seemed to be laying eggs so I don’t dare remove any of it. I also have discovered some new visitors, such as Narrow-leafed Blue-eyed Grass.

My backyard is a small forest with a lot of native plants and grasses that need more control than I have been able to do. I am taking the week off before the walk to make as much sense out of it as I can and also to make sure I can identify everything – or almost everything – that’s growing. I have stopped feeding the birds and squirrels, except for the occasional hummingbird or oriole that might stop by, so the rat control project can succeed. The only thing I have to contend with is weather and stamina. So working in the yard is what I am looking forward to next week.

In the meantime I hope to be back with some pictures from previous outings this spring.

Settling into Snow – Before and After

I went to the Portage last Saturday before the big snow, thinking it might be my last chance for a while. I could have gone back yesterday morning, but I decided to give in to the single-digit cold and get my grocery shopping done before it became prohibitive to go anywhere. I think I made the right decision.

It was a cloudy, gloomy morning and hardly anyone else was there, except for the volunteer crew below. They came to take out invasive species. Some time later I could smell and then see the fire they started to burn what they cut down.

I saw virtually no birds, and didn’t hear very many of them either. There were a few ducks in the Des Plaines River. One Common Merganser, four Goldeneye and a couple Mallards – none of them really identifiable below – are the only ones I saw, at a distance. While I was down by the river, four train engines came down the middle track.

Whatever the landscape had to offer I attempted to commemorate…

The iconic stump…
A snowman in the middle of the frozen stream…

Snowy scenes, gray skies…and a distant coyote.

And then came the snow. I took a picture of the accumulation on the feeder baffles through the porch window the next morning, just to document how much snow we got. A bit harder to find the female cardinal in the snowy branches.

I have had two pairs of Northern Cardinals in the yard this winter. They tend to all show up together at dusk and individually in between times. Staying home more has afforded familiarity and they seem to be a bit less wary of my presence. I was peering down at the male on the ground through the porch windows. The feeder shots were taken outside.

If I stand at the back of the lot I can watch the birds at the feeders a bit, albeit through the dogwood branches that offer the birds cover. But I don’t know how much of that I will be doing in single-digit weather…

The forecast is grim with more cold and snow for the coming week, but after that it seems we will start to warm up and maybe with some melting, we can dig ourselves out of all this snow. I should try to remember years ago when I was playing in a band, on the road at a Holiday Inn in Ogallala, Nebraska, on Thanksgiving…and going out the next day to find the snow plowed and piled up 10-12 feet high in the middle of the street. I should not feel inconvenienced by a few feet of piled-up snow! For the moment I’m going to go out and do a little snow removal so I can still open my back gate to access the trash containers. The yard birds could probably use a refill and some clean water in the heated birdbaths too. I hope you are having a lovely, warm-enough week somewhere.

Last Weekend at the Portage: Coming Back to Life

I can’t believe another week has gone by already. While it seems like time should be moving slowly, I am finding it to be the opposite as my days at home fill up with work and chores. It’s as if I never left my schedule. And yet because I am home, it sometimes seems like I don’t have a schedule.

Winter returned twice this week and I was going to post a few pictures of birds in the snow but time got away from me and I’m not feeling too nostalgic for snow at the moment. It’s still chilly overnight but I think we are finally going to start warming up. And of course the question lurking right behind that is, Then What?

I went to the Portage last Saturday and Sunday mornings, because both days turned out fairly decent weather-wise. The variety of species differed somewhat between the two days, in that the Yellow-Rumped Warblers who posed for pictures and the one Ruby-Crowned Kinglet were present on Saturday but not detectable on Sunday. That sort of thing. On the other hand, I had the Bluebird on Sunday. So it goes.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler
American Robin

I’ve been seeing Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers (I call them “Sappies”) in the neighborhood all week, and had one in my yard last weekend, but this is the only one I’ve been able to sort of capture so far.

There were a lot of White-Throated Sparrows, or at least more of them than the other species. Below this grouping is a short recording of one of them singing. He had a really nice version of their song, which has always been one of my favorites.

I had no idea what was going on with these Red-Winged Blackbirds on the trail as I approached them on Saturday, but on Sunday I noticed that someone has been leaving a little pile of birdseed, so that explains the gathering and likely the behavior. Feeding the animals is a no-no. But I imagine there are more people walking the trails these days than normally do, and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe we will all treasure being outside more after our quarantine subsides.

The Tree Sparrow was seen on Saturday and not on Sunday. I don’t expect to see one again until late fall.

The female Red-Wingeds have now joined the males and everybody’s ready to start working on the next generation. On Saturday I must have had more than 50 Red-Winged Blackbirds at the Portage. I don’t think I ever saw that many last year. It could be some were passing through. It will be interesting to see how many remain to nest.

There was one male Blue-Winged Teal hanging out with a couple of Mallards.

I only got a glimpse of the crown on this Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

Woodpeckers – there were a lot of Northern Flickers. And Downy Woodpeckers are always present. I always hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker, but don’t always see one. It was also nice to see a Hairy Woodpecker. I keep hoping I will see a Red-Headed Woodpecker here again.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

This looks like a young male Red-Winged Blackbird. He must be a late-bloomer.

Robins are everywhere.

As things are just starting to turn green, mosses were attractive.

People have been reporting Hermit Thrushes so I was happy to see one. I miss seeing half a dozen of them at once downtown in the city, but maybe it’s better to see one in the woods than a lot of them on turf grass.

Hermit Thrush

There were two Turkey Vultures flying around, at then at one point they landed in the trees.

A lovely Mrs. Cowbird. What more can I say?

The trees are starting to bud and this will all burst into green soon.

If you click on the dove pictures you can see nesting material in its bill easier.

There are a lot of Cardinals at the Portage but they’re not always easy to capture, especially this time of year when they’re busy setting up territories.

So here is the Bluebird of Happiness. I don’t get to see Bluebirds too often, so this was a special treat.

I plan to go out this weekend and with any luck, there will be even more birds to see. Migration continues, and I suspect the birds are having a better time of it without so much human interruption.

Snow: Before and After

Hairy Woodpecker at the Portage

Yesterday morning I got up and went to see how the birds were doing at the Portage. It was a cold, windy, bleary morning, and as far as I could tell, nobody was having a good time.

When the large black blob in the distance turned out to be a windblown Bald Eagle, I was encouraged to investigate. I couldn’t get very close to where it was perched high above the railroad tracks.

The Red-Winged Blackbirds weren’t singing much. This one appeared to look as if he was reconsidering his early arrival.

I did finally manage to see one of perhaps four Song Sparrows who were carrying on vocally as if spring had sprung. But he wasn’t flaunting his presence.

Perhaps the nicest surprise was an Eastern Phoebe. I felt for him, though, as there were no bugs to eat and it made me wonder what else he could get by on a couple days before the scheduled warmup.

Even the Robins weren’t having a good time.

The cardinals have been singing for weeks. They started earlier than the Robins. There was one singing along with the piano a few days ago. I was surprised, since the windows aren’t open. He must have heard the keyboard through the front door and I assume he was perched on the little apple tree outside of it. Below is a recording of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and just at the end where I start playing some other chords you can hear the cardinal singing along.

Northern Cardinal at the Portage
Cardinal singing with us toward the end of this clip

This Downy Woodpecker was foraging low with the sparrows.

I never did see if there was a hen sitting on a presumably well-hidden nest who belonged to this Mallard but he was definitely taking it easy.

I really hoped we were done with this snow stuff, although it was less than a minor inconvenience considering I didn’t have to go anywhere and it has now melted away. These few photos are from yesterday afternoon through the porch windows. The wet snow was falling and I didn’t feel like joining the birds in it, but I wanted to commemorate its arrival since I banished all my snow-in-the-yard photos from this “past” winter to external storage to make room for spring.

I’ve gone back to the photos from my August trip to New Brunswick and Grand Manan and hope to follow with a post or two featuring bright sunshiny blue skies shortly.

I hope you are in good health, and pray you are making some sense out of all the chaos. We will get through this.

Summer Comes to the Portage

Blue Dasher

I have been going to the Portage just about every weekend this month, and I’ve also been working my tail off during the week, so it’s been hard to sit down and make sense of anything. These few pictures are the highlights from this past Sunday morning.

Right away I was suddenly engaged following a hungry vireo as it foraged not too far away, right about eye-level. It was a Warbling Vireo, but I had never seen such a wide-eyed one before. He looked surprised to see me as well.The Portage has five or more nesting pairs and I hear them singing all the time, but rarely see them. This is the closest and longest I’ve ever observed a Warbling Vireo.

Summer brings out lots of dragonflies and some other critters I don’t often see, like this Bullfrog.

The frog fanciers were present too, although instead of fishing, I saw them only perched or in flight this time.

Maybe you’ve noticed how bouncy goldfinches are in flight, they seem to propel themselves through the air, and that’s exactly what they were doing on Sunday. The only goldfinches I saw were flying, below.

Not seeing many butterflies, but there seem to be a reasonable number of dragonflies. And then there was this metallic turquoise beetle…

Juvenile robins are gawky and spotted and just generally at an awkward stage…

In general, the Baltimore Orioles weren’t posing, and if they were still for a moment they were still quite far away. They weren’t even bothering to sing hardly at all. Everybody is busy rearing youngsters.

Baltimore Oriole

After crazy busy at work I am looking forward to the four-day weekend. Weather permitting, I hope to venture a little farther than the Portage; I feel the need to at least attempt to see some grassland birds. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, there’s plenty more to do – like finish processing the Texas pictures and those from my previous visits to the Portage this month. One cannot plan ahead anymore. The weather changes ever five minutes, so I am going with the flow. It’s been thundering and raining tonight as I write. Even if we’ve managed to totally mess it up, weather is still something we cannot control. Haha.

A Philadelphia Vireo

We must have been right in the migratory path for these birds, because I can’t remember ever seeing them before, but this spring I got to photograph two individuals. This short post is a tribute to a special encounter I had with this one Philadelphia Vireo at the Portage on May 27.

There’s nothing flashy about this bird, and observing a gray bird so closely on a rather gray-sky day was totally unexpected. I just stood and photographed this beautiful creature while it gleaned what I can only imagine were infinitesimal insects caught in what might appeared to be some web filament.

So if you ever get this good a look at a vireo, you can always confirm the genus because they all have blue feet!

I will be back with a more traditional post soon. I just wanted to devote an entire page to these pictures because the encounter was so special. A bird I was barely familiar with gave me an entire tutorial about its habits and appearance in the space of maybe five minutes. I am forever grateful.

Hodgepodge

My bird observation life has been peripatetic at best. Last Saturday was probably the best recent weekend day to go out, but I was at our annual choir retreat for three hours in the morning to prepare for this coming Choir Sunday. The weather was predictably cloudy and more miserable last Sunday so I stayed at home and took some pictures of the yard crowd.

I did manage to get out on March 31st to the Portage. Even though it was chilly and cloudy, I wanted to see if there were any new arrivals. For the most part I saw regular visitors. One White-Breasted Nuthatch was particularly cooperative. Perhaps he is related to the one who visits my yard on occasion.

The locals were all busy.

Perhaps the most evident Sign of Spring was seeing the return of a Turkey Vulture.

March 31st at the Portage still sleepy.

In the yard, I am happy to still have two Pine Siskins hanging out. I hope this means they have become regular visitors.

The Goldfinches are looking a little in-betweenish these days.

Not too clear pictures through the porch windows and screens but the House Finches are bonding. There’s a Pine Siskin mixed in the group shots too.

When I managed to stand in the backyard and wait for the birds to come back for photos, a male Downy Woodpecker made sure he checked out everything.

I still have a Dark-Eyed Junco or two, as of Sunday. And even though we had a nice warmup on Monday and Tuesday, the winds have shifted and we are back into chilly, windy gloom.

In a way I am glad I have not had time to start cleaning up my yard because there are undoubtedly a lot of overwintering insects I don’t want to disturb.

This Saturday I’m “leading” a walk at Columbus Park. So far the weather looks promising. I expect we will have a few migrants and with any luck I’ll get some pictures of them.

I’m looking forward to Choir Sunday. Our last rehearsal is tonight. We are singing a wonderful work by John Kramer entitled “The Immigrant Experience.” If you are anywhere within striking distance of Oak Park, Illinois, I urge you to attend either one of the two Sunday services at Unity Temple. Yes, this is a plug, but for a good cause. The music will be breathtaking.

With any luck I’ll be back to this page before next Saturday. Then I will be gone for a birding trip to Big Bend and the Hill Country in Texas. It’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and I wanted to see it before any habitat is destroyed by the border fiasco.

Long Holiday Weekend…

WBNU Yard - 11-22-18-4992

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Choir tour and back-to-work notwithstanding, I feel remiss about not having managed a blog post until now. It’s not for lack of photographic experiences, but more my lack of energy and planning. What I have tried to plan to do with my four-day weekend is get in as much outdoor time as possible. Starting with Thursday…

Portage - 11-22-18-4760

 

I went to the Portage even though it was cloudy and windy. Unsurprisingly I did not see many birds and those I saw did not make taking their pictures easy. But the first capture proved to be a rare one. Apparently it’s a little late for a Field Sparrow…even if it’s not a great image the bird was unmistakable.

Field Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrows were in abundance, but still not so easy to see, along with the American Tree Sparrows.

White-Throated Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Downy Woodpeckers winter at the Portage so they tend to stand out even when they aren’t trying to.

The Portage Pillage continues. I’m not sure if these trees were invasive or in bad shape but they are gone now. The third photo below shows the shallow water frozen, prohibiting waterfowl visitors.

The female cardinal below was not staying for a better shot.

NOCA - 11-22-18-4770Only two days earlier with the prospect of sunshine in the afternoon, I managed to get out of the office for a short walk over to the Lake Street bridge to see if there were any birds in the water.

None yet except for two Mallards napping on a log. But it wasn’t the Mallards that caught my attention – it was a bump on the log that created an optical illusion, looking very much like a Whip-Poor-Will on my camera. It wasn’t until I viewed the photographs on my computer that I realized this was a natural sculpture. So desperate was I to see a bird!